By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

Violane Gillyard and Sharon Jones are related neither by blood nor formal adoption but are as “family” as you can get. Gillyard has been caring for Jones for 23 years under Catholic Social Services and Life Sharing Through Family Living, a foster care program that places people with intellectual disabilities of all ages with loving families.

“She started calling me Mother and my mother Grandmom from day one,” said Gillyard of Jones, who was 21 when she came to them. “My family loves her, and everybody, when they call, asks, ‘How is Sharon doing?’ I love the family living program and she does too.”

Jones is equally fond of Gillyard. “She’s a nice person and a good mother. I love my cousins too,” she said.

Gillyard and Jones were panel members at a March 25 MyCity, MyPlace and Brighter Futures Awards celebration sponsored by the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral and Mental Retardation Services at Temple University’s Liacoras Center, which brought hundreds of providers and foster families together for the day.

Overall, the city has 232 men, women and children in placement under the program, and Catholic Social Services is among the oldest and largest providers.

“Right now we have 57 inspaniduals placed with families, and they range in age from 12 to 82,” said Jim Boyle, manager for the Life Sharing program for CSS, which took over from another agency in 1987. Sister of St. Joseph Leona Tucker is a pioneer manager.

At that time Jones was already placed with Gillyard, and Boyle was her case manager.

When the program began it was mostly for young adults who had aged out of training schools and needed a different form of care. Some are now placed in Community Living Arrangements (CLAs). In CLAs several people with intellectual disabilities share a group home under the supervision of a team of social workers. In others, the young adults live in family settings. It depends on the specific needs and preferences of the inspanidual.

“It’s a great program, and it is instrumental in helping folks with disabilities expand their horizons,” said Boyle, who has more than once walked the talk. He and his wife Tracy took in Anthony, who was nonverbal and in his 60s for six months until another family could be found.

“He shared a bedroom with our 8-year-old son. We still go to see him,” Boyle said.

Originally called the Family Living Program, Life Sharing was added to the name to emphasize most of the people served also have natural families who love them too.

In Anthony’s case, “his sister and brother-in-law went to St. Clement School with my father,” Boyle said.

Another man who had an elderly guest in his home for years who has since died, told how he and his wife still get invited to the man’s family’s gatherings.

Kathy Sykes, who coordinates Mental Retardation Services of the City of Philadelphia, said CSS “took on the challenge when this was a very young program. I think it says a lot when people who were part of the program then are still with it today. It’s a very successful program, and it is about finding the right match of the inspanidual with the family so they can truly become a family.”

An example Sykes specifically mentioned was Cynthia, who was placed through CSS 25 years ago. When her foster mother died, her daughter took over Cynthia’s care.

However, it’s not a program for everyone. Although host families receive a stipend, that’s not what it’s all about. “You have to have a lot of love, patience and understanding,” Gillyard said. “We learn from them like they learn from us. I learned patience and understanding from Sharon.”

For more information concerning Life Sharing Through Family Living call 610-544-7813, ext. 37583.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.